“When we’re looking at these images,” Weems said, “we’re looking at the ways in which Anglo America—white America—saw itself in relationship to the Black subject.” Among them are distressing pictures of enslaved African Americans taken by photographer Joseph T. Zealy in 1850. Commissioned by the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, they were meant to support racist theories about the inferiority of Black people. Many of the sitters are naked or half naked and depicted as anthropological specimens rather than individuals. The work is bookended by images of a royal Mangbetu woman witnessing the narrative.
Through her presentation, Weems asks us to question the intentions behind these pictures and their dissemination. She enlarged, cropped, and tinted the images, then placed the prints in circular mattes that suggest the camera’s lens, emphasizing the acts of framing and looking. Finally, she overlaid the images with her own texts that expose a long history of systemic injustice. “I wanted to intervene in that by giving a voice to a subject that historically has had no voice.”